MOSCOW (AP) — With Russia preparing to host two of the biggest sporting events in the world, a professional soccer team from Moscow has been involved in a racism controversy that has led to calls for tougher action.
Manchester City midfielder Yaya Toure, who is black and grew up in Ivory Coast, said he was racially abused by opposing fans during a Champions League match at CSKA Moscow on Wednesday.
The Russian club denied it, but the governing body of European soccer opened disciplinary proceedings against CSKA on Thursday.
"We regret the incident, even though we consider the accusations of racism to be unfounded," CSKA said Thursday in a statement.
Russia will host the Sochi Olympics in February and the 2018 World Cup.
Opinion polls show that many Russians dislike dark-skinned migrants from ex-Soviet nations, and violent xenophobic groups have beaten and killed non-Slavs and anti-racism activists.
Russia has come under scrutiny as host of the 2014 Winter Olympics after a law was passed this year outlawing "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations among minors," which many worry may apply to gay athletes and visitors to the games.
On Wednesday, Toure said a section of CSKA fans abused him with racist chanting during the match, and the City player then complained to the referee.
Besides denying the incident, the Russian team went further by quoting Seydou Doumbia, a striker from Ivory Coast who plays for the Russian team, as saying Toure was overstating what had happened.
"Yes, they're always noisy in supporting the team, and try to put as much pressure as possible on our opponents," Doumbia said, "but they wouldn't ever allow themselves to come out with racist chants. So my Ivory Coast colleague is clearly exaggerating."
City won the match 2-1, but Toure called on UEFA to take action against CSKA.
"I think UEFA has to be stronger, and hold all the clubs and all the fans that do that (responsible)," Toure said. "Maybe they have a stadium ban. For me as an African player it is always sad to hear something like that and we need to do something about it."
Toure also raised the prospect of teams boycotting the 2018 World Cup in Russia if the racism issue isn't dealt with in the interim.
"If we aren't confident at the World Cup, coming to Russia, we don't come," he said, according to RIA Novosti.
On Wednesday, City manager Manuel Pellegrini had echoed the call for action over the chants, saying "it was a pity and I hope we have the right measures."
In the past, Russia has tried to deal with the issue of racism at its stadiums. Some, including Anzhi Makhachkala players Roberto Carlos and Christopher Samba, repeatedly had bananas thrown at them by fans.
After an incident with Samba last year, Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko vowed to reduce racism. But such promises haven't been backed up with action and authorities remain reluctant to investigate and punish the culprits.
On Thursday, CSKA also said it was "surprised and disappointed" about Toure's statements, and added that it hadn't found any such chants after checking the video recording of the game, saying that the fans were booing some of the players during the game, irrespective of their ethnicity.
"It's unclear what made the Ivorian midfielder think that it was directed against him," CSKA said.
Bobby Barnes, Europe's top official in the international players' union, said Thursday that the match officials failed to carry out their own protocol.
Toure said he told referee Ovidiu Hategan about the racist chants, expecting that he would speak to the safety officer who should warn the fans that the game will be stopped if the chants didn't end.
"I would certainly hope in line with the hard line stance that UEFA has stated and intends to use in these circumstances they will make a meaningful sanction in this case," Barnes said in a story posted on the FIFPro website. "It's important we send a message now."
UEFA has recently decided that racist chants should involve a partial stadium closure for the first offense and a full stadium closure for repeat offenders. Three clubs this season have had full stadium bans for racism and five had had partial closures.
Previously in Russia, Lokomotiv Moscow fans held up a banner in 2010 thanking an English team for signing their black striker Peter Odemwingie with a picture of a banana. The head of Russia's World Cup bid awkwardly said it wasn't racism, but rather an innocent reference to a colloquial expression meaning a student failure at an exam.
Last year, fans of Zenit St. Petersburg called for non-white and gay players to be excluded from the team. Landscrona, the largest Zenit supporters' club, said that "dark-skinned players are all but forced down Zenit's throat now, which only brings out a negative reaction," and said gay players were "unworthy of our great city."